Rewind: The Days When Radio Shack Hawked Brick Cellphones for $799

Mobile Technology Has Come a Long, Long Way -- and It's Gotten a Heck of a Lot Cheaper

By Published on .

With Apple launching the fifth iteration of its iPhone -- a device that is faster and lighter than ever, weighing in at a mere 4 ounces yet serving as a highly capable computer, camera and phone in one -- the days when a mobile phone was as heavy as bowling ball are a distant memory.

So for this Rewind, we thought we'd take note of just how far mobile technology has come. And perhaps nothing better sums up our advances in the mobile space than this 30-second spot for Radio Shack from 1989 that touted a "powerful transportable cellular phone system."

The ad is set to an upbeat jingle that says "Go Where You Wanna Go ... Call When You Wanna Call." Meanwhile, various actors appear on screen using a suitcase-sized cellular phone (even bigger than the type that Michael Douglass' character Gordon Gekko used in the movie "Wall Street ") in an array of environs. They lug the giant phones with their charging bags all the way to the beach, construction sites, to a wedding and to boy-scout camp. My personal favorite is the shot where we see someone using the phone while zipping along the waves on the back of a speedboat.

Throughout, the spot hammers home the competitive price that Radio Shack is offering, claiming that it's some $350 cheaper than other models.

Still, the cost of the giant mobile phone is $799 -- a lot of money during the 1980's. Heck, it's a lot of money today!

According to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, a web app that uses U.S. government consumer price data, adjusting for inflation, the $799 that a customer would have paid in 1989 for a cellphone from Radio Shack would today be equivalent to $1,385.71. And remember, that wouldn't include the call charges from a carrier like MCI (rest in peace) or Sprint.

Relatively speaking, mobile-phone prices had come down by the time Radio Shack was airing this commercial, five years after the first cellphone hit the U.S. market in the 1984. That phone was a Motorola Dynatac 8000X that weighed nearly two pounds, and sold for as much as $3000.

Radio Shack, which got its start in Fort Worth, Texas in about 1920, was for the first several decades of its history a mail-order business for radios, batteries and calculators. By the 1970s, it was pushing personal computers, and even got into the business of manufacturing them for a time. A huge milestone came in 1984 when Radio Shack sold its very first cellphone -- and little did it know that within 30 years it would be responsible for selling more than 73 million of them around the world.

For a long time, creative work to market the brand was handled exclusively by Circle R Group, the retailer's in-house agency. But it has sometimes looked outside to promote its inhouse electronics expertise. In the 90's, Y&R (then called Lord, Dentsu & Partners, New York) gave the retailer one of its more popular taglines in history, "You've got questions. We've got answers."

But since 2005, it's primarily worked with outside partners, and has cycled through several shops. Radio Shack has worked with Arnold and Butler Shine, and its current agency is Grey .

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